Albert T. Bledsoe: Mathematician, Theologian, and Proslavery Philosopher
    by Ian Iverson and Josh Morrison

Albert T. Bledsoe (1809-1877)

UVA Professor of Mathematics, 1854-1863

A Kentucky native who had graduated from West Point and Kenyon College in Ohio, Bledsoe had dabbled in a variety of learned professions across the country.  His colorful career included stints as an army officer on the southwestern frontier, an Episcopal clergyman in Ohio, a lawyer in Illinois (where he associated with Abraham Lincoln), and as Professor of Mathematics at the University of Mississippi. Accepting the same position at UVA in 1854, it appeared Bledsoe thrived in this interdisciplinary intellectual community. In fact, of all of UVA’s pro-slavery professors, Bledsoe offered the most well-developed philosophical celebration of slavery.

While Bledsoe derived his mathematical expertise from his training at West Point— at that time the nation’s premier technical academy— he drew on his days as a seminarian in Yankee Ohio to shape his defense of human bondage. Originally ordained as an Episcopal minister, Bledsoe subsequently left the Church in favor of Methodism and had written two well received theological tracts, Examination of Edwards on the Will (1845) and A Theodicy, or Vindication of the Divine Glory (1853). Always setting his sights high, Bledsoe’s 1845 work took aim at Jonathan Edwards, one of the most influential theologians in American history. A committed Arminian, Bledsoe fiercely defended the compatibility of human freedom and divine sovereignty. Rejecting Edwards’ Calvinist fatalism, Bledsoe argued that individual will shaped the fate of one’s soul. Men and women actively chose to accept God’s grace and then lived out their Christian identity through intentional acts of personal piety. One might easily see the appeal of such a perspective to the slaveholders of the 1840s and 1850s, for whom paternalist mastery demanded both a strong independent will and Christian benevolence. Assuming their position at the pinnacle of a divine hierarchy, Christian masters could, in all good conscience, exercise their free will to subdue the sinful impulses of their bondpeople and shape them into obedient Christian servants. 

With his peers primed to view his work as established and sophisticated, Bledsoe incorporated this prolonged religious explanation of slavery in On Liberty and Slavery (1856). In addition to his claims of divine hierarchy, he offered an extended analysis of Biblical support for slavery. Like many of his writings, Bledsoe responded directly to the arguments of prominent opponents— in this case, famous abolitionists— by undertaking a point by point rebuke of their previous publications. And how could anyone disagree? As Bledsoe mused, “For the truth… we rely upon the express authority of God himself. We affirm that since slavery has been ordained by him, it cannot be always and everywhere wrong.”

On Liberty and Slavery served as one of the most extensive examples of Southern pro-slavery thought. Largely discounting Jefferson’s generation, Bledsoe took aim at the root of their enlightenment beliefs: John Locke. To do this, Bledsoe traced Locke’s philosophy of natural rights to Thomas Hobbes’ state of nature. Bledsoe hoped to upend the well-established American tradition of modern natural rights, largely theorized by Locke, by marrying it to the widely discounted work of Thomas Hobbes. The core of Lockean thought depended on civil liberties, rights based on every man’s natural liberty, that were carefully preserved by the development of government. To discredit Locke, Bledsoe rooted out a contradiction, that “Locke referred to natural liberty as both something highly exalted, a “gift of God to man,” as well as something “wild and savage” that men should give up in favor of civil liberty.” Bledsoe hammered Locke on his tepid criticism of humans’ most basic existence, equating Locke’s natural liberty with Hobbes’ barbaric state of nature.

Having collapsed the two philosophers’ beliefs into the same argument, Bledsoe turned to theology for his coup de grâce. How could humanity exhibit such a wretched nature if God had made them in his image? Would not this prove God’s fallibility? Bledsoe flipped the script, arguing that humanity occupied a secure place within a divinely ordained hierarchy-- an ordering displayed most visibly by race. Humans erred primarily when they departed from this hierarchy and allowed the lowly to rule over the great. For Bledsoe, liberty did not entail a universal set of rights, but consisted of the freedom to assume one’s God given status in a hierarchy. Thus, Bledsoe joined together liberty and order, freedom and duty, as pairs: each meaningless without the other. By fulfilling their natural role, slaves achieved the fundamental liberty to exist as intended. To preempt easy criticism, Bledsoe took a utilitarian tact. Not only did slaves appear generally well-treated and content in their God-given roles, but their sufferings must be considered in a broader setting. By serving their role, slaves ensured a healthy, functioning society that guaranteed the most liberty for the most people, including slaves.

Leaving UVA to serve as a Confederate soldier, administrator, and diplomat during the Civil War, Bledsoe remade himself again in the postwar period as one the leading proponents of the "Lost Cause." Bledsoe first sought to vindicate the cause of secession in his 1866 pamphlet Is Davis a Traitor: Or Was Secession a Constitutional Right Previous to the War of 1861 and later defended Robert E. Lee and denounced his onetime acquaintence Abraham Lincoln as editor of the Southern Review. Rejecting the strategy of the "New Departure" and the goal of creating an entreprenurial "New South," Bledsoe clung tenaciously to his view of natural hierarhcy until his death at the end of 1877. 

*Note: This piece represents research findings for a forthcoming academic article on proslavery thought at UVA. For full references please contact the authors.


Terry A. Barnhart, Albert T. Bledsoe: Defender of the Old South and Architect of the Lost Cause (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2011). 

Alfred L. Brophy, University, Court, and Slave: Pro-Slavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Michael O'Brien, Conjectures of Order: Intellectual Life and the American South, 1810-1860, Vol 2. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Chad Vanderford, "Proslavery Professors: Classic Natural Right and the Positive Good Argument in Antebellum Virginia, " Civil War History, Volume 55, Number 1, March 2009, pp. 5-30.